We tend to reduce charity to caring for people’s bodies, forgetting the needs of their souls. Indeed this oversight often proves self-defeating, since many of the corporal works of mercy become necessary because of defects of the soul. Some (not all) are imprisoned, poor, hungry, thirsty, naked, and so forth as a result of deep spiritual issues in their lives or in the wider culture. Yet so easily we overlook these spiritual issues....One thing which the old Baltimore (or Penny) Catechism did nicely was emphasize the fact that we are creature possessed of both body and soul. It follows that we must care for both body and soul--but the more important of the two is the soul. Thus, the spiritual works of mercy are the more important set of works. Feeding a hungry man and quenching his thirst may help him to live another day in this life; but offering him correction and counsel can help to sustain his soul into the next life.
Sadly, we often consider that our care for the poor has been accomplished by having provided clothing, shelter, or food. It is astonishing that we almost never even ask them to come to church or to listen to a sermon. In the old days at the old gospel mission downtown, or the Salvation Army soup kitchen, or the Catholic cafeteria and shelter, the poor who filed in were often expected to listen to a sermon, receive some Christian instruction, and surely to pray before the distribution of the meal or before bed at the shelter. This is rarely true today and most Catholic outreaches to the poor are almost indistinguishable from those of the government or nonbelievers. I pray you know of exceptions and will inform me of them, but the general pattern is very secular and corporal in its focus....
We think we are done when we have handed out the Christmas baskets. But where will most of the poor, whom we have blessed with this food and these toys, be going to church for the Christmas feast? Most of them, I can tell you from experience, are not going anywhere; they don’t belong to any church. And this is often part of the problem. Quite simply, many of them are disconnected from the wider community including the Church.
Obviously, both are needed--but if we only offer food and drink and clothing and shelter, without offering community or fraternal correction or the consolations of faith, then we are showing kindness but not really love.